Two weeks before the Yukon Quest sled dog race starts in either Fairbanks, Alaska or Whitehorse, Yukon, all mushers’ food and equipment must be organized and brought to the designated food drop. Yukon Quest mushers mark their food drop bags for each checkpoint with their name and the checkpoint name, and make certain the bags do not exceed the weight limit of 40 lbs/18.2kg. The Yukon Quest then distributes all the bags to race checkpoints for mushers to retrieve during the race. If the musher misses the food drop date, they assume all responsibility and expenses to ensure their gear is in place at all race checkpoints before the start of the race.
One week before the race starts, dogs entered in the race must undergo a complete physical examination at the Official Vet Check. This ensures that all dogs participating in the Yukon Quest are suitably fit to complete the 1,000 mile sled dog race. Veteran Yukon Quest mushers are permitted to have their teams examined by a Yukon Quest approved veterinarian, but all rookies and most veterans bring their teams to the Official Vet Checks.
Each musher must leave the checkpoints with a minimum of 8 booties per dog, either in the sled or on their dogs, and enough food and equipment for themselves and their team to safely travel to the next race checkpoint. Mushers carry a wide variety of food for their sled dogs, and will utilize favorite snacks to entice picky eaters to eat well on the trail. Dog food makes up a significant amount of the weight of the dogsled and emergency rations as well as special nutrient supplements are always in the mushers’ sleds.
Strategy and routine are an important part of the race. Generally, mushers run their teams in a 50-50 run-rest schedule. Typical patterns are “four on, four off”, meaning a four hour run followed by a four hour rest for the dogs. Longer runs are becoming more common as sled dogs are bred for greater endurance and training techniques improve.
Mushers must be prepared for very cold weather-- temperatures of -40 and colder are not unusual. Very warm temperatures ( 25F/-4C) and above would cause a musher to consider running more in the cold of the night and rest longer during the "heat" of the day.
Teams generally run and rest around the clock, using the schedule of the dogs to determine their progress rather than the time of day or night. During a typical rest stop, mushers remove their dogs’ booties, feed their dogs, cook their next meal, check and re-check their dogs' feet, coat, harnesses and attitude…then grab a bite to eat for themselves and if they are lucky, catch a few winks of sleep.
There are four mandatory layovers during the race where mushers must stop for designated lengths of time.
The mushers may choose to serve their first mandatory layover at either Mile 101 or Central in even numbered years, or at either Braeburn or Carmacks in odd numbered years. Here, the musher must rest a minimum of 4 hours which allows Race Veterinarians to examine every dog after the first 100 miles of the race.
Eagle is the most remote checkpoint on the Yukon Quest Trail, with no highway access during the winter. Mushers must rest here for at least 4 hours.
At the halfway checkpoint in Dawson City there is a 36-hour mandatory layover. This feature of the Yukon Quest is unique in sled dog racing and allows for mushers and their dog teams to rejuvenate before starting the second half of their race. Dawson City is also the only race checkpoint where mushers may receive assistance.
At the last race checkpoint there is a mandatory layover of 8 hours- Braeburn in even numbered years or Two Rivers in odd numbered years. Race Veterinarians examine all dogs on every team carefully and check in with all the mushers to be certain that all race participants are in good condition to run the final 100 miles of the race.